Blog #37 – Meaning and purpose II
Last time, we focused on the importance of cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning in life as it relates to individual well-being.
We concluded by referring to Russell Grieger’s three-step process designed to help individuals identify and act on their true ‘passionate purpose’, with the first two of these being to ‘Reflect on Your Purpose’ and then ‘Create Your Purpose’.
Once these two steps have been taken, and ideally with patience and care, the final part of the process is to ‘Live Your Purpose’. As stated last time, this marks the moment where you move beyond having identified your purpose and take it to the point of action, with the creation of a plan for how you intend to express this purpose at the centre of your life.
So, how do we go about doing that? According to Grieger, the planning phase after identifying your life’s purpose is vital. Heading into this part of the process, people tend to only have identified their purpose in a general sense, i.e., they lack the specific focus to channel it in a practical way. With a view towards narrowing it down and homing in on a specific angle, Grieger, writing online at Psychology Today, emphasises the importance of looking to “clearly articulate ways you can express your purpose through each major role you play in life… By connecting what you do to this purpose, how can your days not be filled with passion, drive, and satisfaction? How can you not be driven to act out your purpose?”
So, again, as alluded to last week, this emphasises that seeking out and acting on your ‘passionate purpose’ does not have to involve blowing up your life and starting all over again or going off the grid. Instead, what Grieger and other voices in this area advocate is finding ways to incorporate this vision into the life you are already living, perhaps predicated upon the assumption that your life path has most likely already taken you in a general direction consistent with the innate human desire for purpose and meaning, but with this direction made more substantial for you if you bring conscious awareness and intent to how you look to set your life up.
Again, as with so many other well-being-related topics, it is helpful to recall the specifics of Seligman’s three happy lives here. While meaning and purpose relate directly to the third of these lives, the meaningful life, it is also useful to think of the second happy life, that of engagement. Here, the emphasis is on flow and absorption, matching up your talents with the tasks you are undertaking, making that a good fit, and therefore getting to ‘exercise’ your key strengths on a daily basis. This is part of what Grieger is referring to when he asks us to consider how we can express our purpose in the key aspects of our lives.
The other angle to focus on here is what happens when you’ve cracked the code and are living a life of meaning and purpose. Needless to say, the prospect sounds attractive, but we may not necessarily be able to intuit all potential benefits that flow from the meaningful life. As with so many other well-being related topics, a wealth of research findings have been published in academic journals seeking to add to our knowledge on such questions.
The sense that we are living a meaningful life has been linked with higher levels of life satisfaction. Meaning and purpose also correlates with better mental health, greater self-worth, and more self-confidence. Of course, as with all correlations we need to be careful not to attribute a causal relationship, but that does not make such findings any less noteworthy.
An article published in the journal Psychological Science in 2014 made a connection between purpose and long life. More specifically, researchers Patrick L. Hill and Nicholas A. Turiano reported that finding a sense of purpose correlates with greater longevity; in essence, those of us who feel our life has meaning and purpose will tend to live longer than those of us who do not.
They reported these findings based on an analysis of data gathered from 6,000 people over 14 years as part of the Midlife in the United States study. Over that period of time, 569 of the participants died, and it was discovered that these people tended to self-report a lower sense of purpose in their lives than those who were still alive.
Again, this a correlation, so it is important to avoid over-simplistic interpretations, such as to make a flawed logical leap to the effect that “those of us with a sense of purpose will live longer.” That may well be so, but we can’t make that claim based on this information. Instead, might it not be at least as likely that individuals with a sense of purpose make healthier lifestyle choices and this might be the decisive factor? The authors themselves acknowledged this possibility, and called for further research to answer that very question.
But for now, what seems reasonable to state is that it is far preferable for individuals to possess a sense of meaning and purpose about their life, and that many positive outcomes are associated with that.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.